...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

William Steig

          Dominic went out for a long walk and did a lot of thinking. He was still walking when the stars came out. Mournful, he lay down on the ground and looked at the stars. Life was mysterious. Bartholomew Badger had been alive long before there was a Dominic--long before anybody had even thought there would be such a dog. Two hours ago, Bartholomew Badger was still alive. But now he was gone. There was no Bartholomew Badger; there was only a memory. His turn was over. Dominic's turn was still at the beginning. There were many who hadn't yet even begun to exist, but there they would be, some time in the future, a whole new world of creatures, some important, some not, and many of them wondering about life just as Dominic was wondering now. It would be their turn, and then Dominic's turn would be over. Many of them would think about the past, which was now the present, but by then what was was now the future would have become the present.
          Somehow this kind of thinking made Dominic feel more religious than usual. He fell asleep under the vast dome of quivering stars, and just as he was falling asleep, passing over into the phase of dreams, he felt he understood the secret of life. But in the light of morning, when he woke up, his understanding of the secret had disappeared with the stars. The mystery was still there, inspiring his wonder.
         He returned to the house. He was not of a mind to eat breakfast. He was not in the mood. He went to the tool shed to get Mr. Badger's shovel, and he labored in the morning sun, digging a deep hole. He dug the hole under a tall oak tree, as old as Mr. Badger, in the front yard; and he buried the pig in the hole.
         Then he leaned on the shovel to rest, the wooden handle warm with his work. The moment he stopped being busy, he felt his heart quake. He had to cry. Life was suddenly too sad. And yet it was beautiful. The beauty was dimmed when the sadness welled up. And the beauty would be there again when the sadness went. So the beauty and the sadness belonged together somehow, though they were not the same at all.
- Dominic (1972)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Midnight Oil

"I won't deny it -- can we survive?"

Fred Sanders

"Think about how the one-two punch feels, and then imagine yourself feeling it as a one-two-three-four-five-six-when-is-this-ever-going-to-stop sequence."


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Claudia Rankine

"I know when Rodney King’s jury came back and said that despite the video, the police had done nothing wrong, that was a moment for me. I literally burst into tears. I had this weird feeling walking around the streets of New York, that I didn’t know who these people were. All of a sudden I felt like an alien. I felt like, holy shit, I am walking around, and all of these people, white people, are okay with my black body being beaten and kicked, even when they’re seeing the violence actually happen and don’t have to rely on hearsay. That the black body is perceived as dangerous, even when it’s on the ground, in a fetal position, with men surrounding it, kicking it. I don’t think I understood or felt as vulnerable ever before. Because I think I always sort of believed in the justice system before that, even though I knew the history. I still felt that when you’re not leaving it up to hearsay, when you have documentation, people will step up. And it didn’t happen. That was really a crisis moment for me. You just feel like, okay, you need to start paying attention. It’s the same line, from Rodney King to Michael Brown. It’s a continuum."


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

poetry reading

after each poem the poet said to the audience, "Think about it."

Poem 8 - Art-Response Poem


Ranch, French, Balsamic Vinaigrette.
Bleu Cheese, Thousand Island,

Mexican Caesar.

Italian, honey mustard.
Lemon and oil and salt.

Ground pepper parmesan
sunflower seeds


Monday, November 17, 2014

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Innocence Mission

Glow (1995)


"The extra perspective [of a story within a story] makes the implication of madness far more chilling. For Caligari is one of the first films to exploit the resemblance between watching a film and dreaming. The framework implies a sense of spectators and projects the view of insanity upon an audience that has been identified with the storyteller." -David Thomson, on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

John Masefield

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

Ernest Becker

"Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem. This is why human heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Galway Kinnell

Looking at Your Face

Looking at your face
now you have become ready to die
is like kneeling at an old gravestone
on an afternoon without sun, trying to read
the white chiselings of the poem
in the white stone.
- A New Selected Poems (2000)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Poem 7 - Blank Verse


A ball, a floor, a broken window pane.
The glinting shards, the footsteps running off.

Lord God, in the cool of the day, calling to two
who hide themselves, who know they're naked now,

who see they've been always without a thread
between their bodies and the perfect glass,

the dome of sky, the voice among the trees.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Poem 6 - Pastoral

A sign near my house, on cardboard, on a tree
& handwritten in Sharpie, reads, “Danger:
Coyotes spotted in this area at night.”
They’ve started killing them, the city has,
the contractor the city hired, at the request
of the citizens—my neighbors.
Lots of signs lately, missing pets.
My cat was killed by coyote last year.
The only remains, the front of her head,
her face with tongue in rictus hanging out,
was placed in a small wooden box by the woman
at the end of the street. Too much for my wife,
so she gave our neighbor the box, who did the job.
I was away at a conference. My wife buried it,
along with ashes of our dog (put down
eleven years ago, last time I sobbed),
in the backyard, where birds—the worst thing
to put in poems, apparently—have returned
in fearless hunting of tiny things in the lawn,
a tiny green our landlord lets us.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

William Gass

     Rilke was, like most men and women, many men...and women. How to describe this crude and jostling crowd of parvenus and office seekers without becoming fascinated or especially repelled by one or other of them, turning into a sycophant or hanging judge, as Rilke's spiritual mumbo jumbo charms, or his presumably snobby politics jars? He is passion's spokesman. He's a cold and calculating egotist, covering his selfishness with the royal robes of art. He's a poseur, a courtier, a migrant, a loner. He hates the United States for reactionary reasons: because he hates machines and commerce, and equality too. He is charming and sensitive and given to shows of concern that melt the heart. His soul is a knot of childhood resentments. He is a trifler. He is too continuously serious--he thinks of himself as a creature of myth. He has all the moth-eaten arrogance of the self-taught, and sports a learning, both quirky and full of holes, which he is as proud of as a pup just trained to paper. Put on airs? An Eskimo has not so many layers of fuss and show. A priest of the poet's art, he takes the European lyric to new levels of achievement--forming, with Valéry and Yeats perhaps, a true triune god--and creates the texts of a worthy religion at last, one which we may wholeheartedly admire, in part because we are not required to believe in it or pay it tithes.
     Doctor Serafico, the princess von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe called him. More appropriately, Doctor Dodge...as we follow this summary full of repetitions of repetition:
     In Linz, it is Olga, in Prague, it is Valley who helps him publish; then Rilke meets Lou, his lover/mother, in Munich, follows her to Berlin, accompanies her to Danzig, St. Petersburg, and back to Berlin again; he vacations in Viareggio, where he meets Elena; enjoys the company of Paula and Clara at Worpswede; marries Clara when bounced by Lou, although he does so against Lou's good advice, and rolls to Westerwede, where these is a charming little cottage soon too full of child cries and other obnoxious duties; consequently he's shortly off to Paris, where Rodin (and not a woman) is the lure, but it is no fun being poor in Paris, even if the parks are pretty; so with Clara (who has parked the kid with her parents), Rilke escapes to Rome, then volleys north to visit Ellen Key in Scandinavia, where he's handsomely taken care of by her friends, until it is time to return to Bremen, Göttingen (one of Lou Salomé's haunts), and Berlin again; but not for long, because it's Rilke's luck to enjoy a few more elegant estates--the Countess von Schwerin's, the Baron von der Heydt's, the beginning of a pleasant habit--before trudging back to Paris and a crankier Rodin.
     Such summations are forms of exaggeration, yet so are maps and travel tables and those figures in the carpet.
- Reading Rilke (1999), 33-34.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Auden's difficult sentences

Here's a poem by Auden, the first in his Selected Poems (Vintage, 1974):
Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the rood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
At Cashwell raises water; for ten years
It lay in flooded workings until this,
Its latter office, grudgingly performed,
And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen
Taken from recent winters; two there were
Cleaned out a damaged shaft by hand, clutching
The winch the gale would tear them from; one died
During a storm, the fells impassable,
Not at his village, but in wooden shape
Through long abandoned levels nosed his way
And in his final valley went to ground.

Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:
This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.
Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall,
They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind
Arriving driven from the ignorant sea
To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm
Where sap unbaffled rises, being Spring;
But seldom this. Near you, taller than grass,
Ears poise before decision, scenting danger.
This is early, from 1927, when, as I understand the narrative, Auden was trying to match the Modernists at their game. Then (again, as I understand the narrative), after he moved to the states and recommitted himself to the Church of England, he put away such childish things and moved to a plainer, more accessible style. [Maybe I'm wrong to say it this way. Language is too much for me, perhaps, but re-reading The Waste Land this past summer brought to me a new, and what feels mature, question: Who is this poem written for?] Whatever the case, I find this poem enchanting even as its sentences resist my comprehension. How do you make sense, for example, of the sentence that begins the second strophe? Or, in a clearly parse-able way, the sentences that precede it? I've read the poem out loud three or four times, and I haven't spent the time I might with it, but in this initial run, I'm, unlike the sap, baffled. That sentence, though, the one that begins, "Beams from your car,"go ahead and say it out loud. If this is what Auden's repudiated youth brought him, I'm happy to have it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Poem Assignment 5 - Elegy or Ode

Poem Beginning w/ a Line from Wikipedia

"According to legend, Cassandra 
     was both beautiful and considered insane."
According to legend, Cassandra's 
     beauty attracted a god's attention.
According to legend, her insanity is a 
     consequence of this attention.
According to legend, the story happened 
     like this: 1. Apollo saw her, his lust aroused, 
     and offered her the gift of prophecy. 2. She 
     accepted but refused his advances. 3. He 
     therefore cursed her so that no one would 
     believe what she foretold. 4. She went insane. 
     5. We refer to this story as a grim warning 
     of something. In other words,
According to legend, beauty is a curse--unchosen 
     and, in the end, alienating. Thus,
According to legend, we should pity people 
     too beautiful to be believed. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Assignment 4 - Persona Poem


We say it’s going to get better.
We say that you are loved.
We say, we say that your transgressions 
     don’t shock us.
We say that it might not get better but 
     you are loved.
We say the end is inevitable.
We say the end is indelible. It’s written 
     in dew.
We say the broken feeling you feel is 
     something you feel.
We say the ways you’ve been misunderstood 
     we know, too.
They are inevitable. Hope if you can if 
     you are able.
We say when people lie they do so because 
     they are afraid of telling the truth.
We say they are afraid they won’t get what 
     they want.
They are venal but so often so are we.
We say what you did is in fact a big deal.
We say nevertheless that it doesn’t shock us, 
     that you’re still just a kid, and even if you 
     weren’t we’d still not be shocked. This world.
We say that we forgive you though the 
     system will not.
We say that we’d like the system to not be 
     so one-size-fits-all, but there are so many 
     of us and there is only so much time, and 
     what should we do, throw down everything 
     so that we can make the consequences 
     appropriate for each case?
We say that would take so much time and 
     energy and we’re so tired.
We say we’re so tired.
We say that you’re still alive but it’s no 
     life you’ll be leading.
We say we’re sorry. For everything.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Four Recommendations

"Identity," by A.R. Ammons
"Foolish Father," by Weezer
Yo La Tengo, live.
Bonnie "Prince" Billie, live.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Declinist Posting

Sorry. I do this for myself.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sonny Rollins

Saxophone Colossus (1956)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Assignment 3: Narrative Poem

When we got the car back

When we got the car back the stereo worked.
It could play an ipod and CDs, and the radio
of course. We lost the cassette deck. When the
Wherehouse and Tower began to close, I picked up
cassettes, priced 99 cents, by Billie Holiday,
Hank Williams, Bruce Springsteen, The Bangles,
Cheap Trick, the Beach Boys. A friend, as we walked  
from Tower to the Side Street Café, said,
“The Beach Boys’ Party? You crack me up.”
The café was run by a single mother
and her daughters. I found them alluring.
We met some other friends there.
I ordered eggs and toast and some sort of breakfast meat.
The hashbrowns had peppers, at that time too much
for my weak palate. I used ketchup.
I still break out Party!, its pastiche of “Little Deuce Coupe”
proof the Boys could be funny, its fake jubilation
no match for forgotten words, obvious pleasure,
and drawn-out ending of “Barbara Ann.”
I would break it out, but the cassette player…
My younger son’s dazzled by the new deck's 
ever-changing lights. He says he wishes it played tapes.
He’s a curious soul, a lover of remnants.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Proverbs 24:11-12

Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
    hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.

If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
    does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
    and will he not requite man according to his work?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The band I sometimes play in...

...has updated its soundcloud playlist. The songs are old but made with love.

Marie Howe

"The Gate"

James Baldwin

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Black Snow

I really wish I could use The Awl's tag "We're All Gonna Die" for news like this.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Tavis Smiley

"I am not an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope."

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Assignment 2: Scene Poem

In twelve lines or fewer, present a scene using concrete detail. Avoid action.

In the Channel

The water is like the blue of the flag, opaque 
And shifting in tone as wind confronts 
Its integrity. The sky the water lines against 
Is paler than it is above our heads, where it domes up 
Into a uniform blue, lighter still than what
We rock on in our boat. At  2 O’Clock,
A golden paddy of kelp. A white blur
The size of a stop sign circles beneath it.
The water’s not opaque after all, but translucent.
The sunfish below is joined by another, and another,
And three more besides. I ready my mask.
The engine is cut, the ocean assumes its voice.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What is it with this country and war?

Assignment Two: "Multiple Image" poem

Using "image" in a simple sense, that of words pointing to concrete referents, the students are to present two to three images, in twelve or fewer lines, and let the juxtaposition of the images do the talking. If they must offer an explicit interpretation, they can use the title for it. Here's the one I made this time:

Afternoon Homework

On the table an open book and glass
of half-drunk juice, pencil
in the crack of the book’s spine,
closed notebook next to the glass.

Color retreats from the window,
the tree’s bark it frames gray already,
street and curb and cars just past it,
visible homes, pale green leaves.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

First the bad news

--CO2 levels are rising at a faster rate than expected, and the oceans' and forests' capacity for absorbing it is shrinking.

But, hey, look! iPhone 6!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Assignment "Zero": Haiku

The first poetry assignment of the semester, hackneyed though it may be, is to have students write haiku. We look at samples in English, we talk about the form's history and variations, and, as is often the case, I participate in the assignment by making some of my own. Here's a just-before-class job:

     Last day of summer:
 The cove is full of flesh, exposed
     To sun and salt air.

I wrote this on the board, and I explained how a small change in a poem can have a large effect:

     Last day of summer:
 The cove is full of flesh, offered
     To sun and salt air.

"Offered" sounds less voyeuristic to my ear than "exposed," but "offered" also suggests interpretation. Since "[haiku] do not present subjective interpretations such as how you feel about these things," I tried again:

      Last day of summer:
 The cove is full of flesh, disclosed
     To sun and salt air.

Next, we changed the line order:

     The cove is full of
Flesh, disclosed to sun and salt air--
     Last day of summer.

The students and I agreed this is better, even if the lineation gets mucked up. Having "Last day of summer" first, followed by a colon, is too definitional, declarative of what the last day of summer is, for everyone. The point of the poem is the image; the fact that it happens on the last day of summer is incidental, even as the nod toward the time of year is essential to haiku. Still, a cove full of flesh, especially as I re-type it in this post, feels unintentionally (and comically) gruesome. Maybe something less pleased with itself:

     In the cove, swimmers
Bathe under sun and salt air--
     Last day of summer. 

Too many S's. How about this:

     In the cove, swimmers
Bathe under sun and salt air--
     Last day of July.

I like the contrast in sound of the last word, though the poem's meaning (of course) is changed. This could go on and on.  

Essential Viewing

102 Minutes that Changed America

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Words: Vexed, Beautiful

from the Merriam-Webster definition of discursive:
a :  moving from topic to topic without order :  rambling
b :  proceeding coherently from topic to topic

Friday, August 29, 2014

Poem in Miramar

A poem of mine, "Usky became whisky in English," is in the new issue of Miramar [#2]. It's a beautifully made book, in an era when most new poetry is being posted online. Though I haven't read through it much, yet, I did read all of issue #1, which contained several poems I've returned to. Check out the website here.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Tomas Transtromer


We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

Inside the church, pillars and vaulting
white as plaster, like the cast
around the broken arm of faith.

Inside the church there's a begging bowl
that slowly lifts from the floor
and floats along the pews.

But the church bells have gone underground.
They're hanging in the sewage pipes.
Whenever we take a step, they ring.

Nicodemus the sleepwalker is on his way
to the Address. Who's got the Address?
Don't know. But that's where we are going.
 - trans. Robert Bly

source, w/ notes

[In the version of the poem found at the link, the poem ends w/ a question mark. I'm familiar with the poem from this book, which ends the poem w/ a period. I prefer this version.]

Friday, August 15, 2014


Free verse really got rolling about a hundred years ago. It wasn't just free in the sense of being very loose in the rhyme and meter department. Free verse was sexually free. That's what nobody understands. Free verse meant free, naked, unclothed, un-Victorian people scampering around in an unfettered sort of way. That's why it was so exciting. I was trying to explain this to my next-door neighbor, Nanette. I ran into her when I was out walking my dog, Smacko. Nan was out again picking up trash with her plastic trash bag. I asked her what she'd found. She'd found some beer cans, a pair of panties, half of a meatball sandwich in a paper plate, an ice cream wrapper, and an old, laceless shoe. We walked back to her house, and she asked me if I knew anything about Toro lawnmowers. I said I knew a little, because I do. Her lawnmower was starting and then dying after about a second. I pulled off the air filter and banged the float cup with a wrench and suddenly, to my surprise, the mower worked. I went around her yard once with it.
     Then she asked--out of politeness--"So why did poems stop rhyming? Were all the rhymes used up?" I said no, no, the rhymes weren't used up, they can never be used up until the English language itself is used up, because rhyme-words are really just the ending sounds of whole phrases and whole lines. It doesn't matter whether "breath" and "death" have been rhymed before, only whether the two new lines that end with "breath" and "death" are interesting and beautiful lines. Although sometimes it's good to give certain rhymes a break for a century or two.
     She said, "So then why?" I told her about Mina Loy, the beautiful free-verse poet whose poems were published in a magazine called Others. Mina Loy had romped with the famous Futurist Filippo Marinetti, and he treated her badly, because he was an unpleasant egotist who liked wars and cars and didn't like women. He'd written a play about a man with a thirty-foot penis that he wrapped around himself when he wanted to take a nap.
     "Golly," said Nan.
     I told her that Mina Loy wrote a poem about sex with him, or with one of the other Futurists, in which she compared Cupid to a pig "rooting erotic garbage." And American newspapers picked up on this phrase, and it made her famous as a free-verser.
     "Very interesting," said Nan. We said good-bye. She began mowing her lawn, and I went into my kitchen. I opened my freezer, looked at the motionless mists in there, and then closed it.
- from The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker

Friday, August 8, 2014

Leonard Cohen

"I have seen the future, brother: It is murder."

The Future

Robots are taking all the jobs. But are we, the average, moderately skilled humans, screwed, or aren't we? Let me just get it out of the way now: We are, unless there are drastic, immediate changes to education and economic systems around the world.
It’s possible that today’s hand-wringing is simply a result of people underestimating the power of capitalist economies to adapt and thrive. They’ve certainly done so in the past. And remember, half of Pew’s respondents still think we’ll be just fine.
If the education system doesn't change to start pumping out technologically savvy, creative people as the rule, not the exception, the rise of robot workers is "certain to lead to an increase in income inequality, a continued hollowing out of the middle class, and even riots, social unrest, and/or the creation of a permanent, unemployable 'underclass,'" the Pew report concludes.
Still, there’s no guarantee that the future will resemble the past. It should be deeply unsettling to policymakers that so many of the smart people who think about these issues believe this time could be fundamentally different.
Some questions:
    Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?
    Why has man entered on an orgy of war, murder, torture, and self-destruction unparalleled in history and in the very center where he had hoped to see the dawn of universal peace and brotherhood?
    Why do people often feel bad in good environments and good in bad environments?
    Why do people often feel so bad in good environments that they prefer bad environments?
    Why does a man often feel better in a bad environment?
    Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?
    Why have more people been killed in the twentieth center than in all other centuries put together?
    Why is war man's greatest pleasure?
    Why is man the only creature that wages war against its own species?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Friday, August 1, 2014

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Off-Screen Violence

Brad Pitt chops off the zombie-bitten hand of a woman a half-second after she's bit. We don't see it but we sense it. He later will lodge a crowbar in a zombie's head and and then try to wrench it out to use on the next zombie, in flight & heading, ha ha, his way. The crowbar's end and the head it's in are below the frame. For what it's worth, I appreciated these choices, made though they were to secure the PG-13 rating and the largest possible box office.

Thomas Pynchon

     Doc and Shasta sat parked by the edge of the empty swamped [excavated] rectangle and watched its edges now and then slide in, and then after a while things rotated ninety degrees, and it began to look, to Doc at least, like a doorway, a great wet temple entrance, into someplace else. The rain beat down on the car roof, lightning and thunder from time to time interrupting thoughts of the old namesake river that had once run through this town, long canalized and tapped dry, and crippled into a public and anonymous confession of the deadly sin of greed.... He imagined it filling again, up to its concrete rim, and then over, all the water that had not been allowed to flow here for all these years now in unrelenting return, soon beginning to occupy the arroyos and cover the flats, all the swimming pools in the backyards filling up and overflowing and flooding the lots and streets, all this karmic waterscape connecting together, as the rain went on falling and the land vanished, into a sizable inland sea that would presently become an extension of the Pacific. 
- from Inherent Vice


Monday, July 28, 2014

Rhyming Movie Reviews

World War Z:
A little too much for me.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Leonard Cohen

"We all feel when we're loved that some concession has been made. And we probably none of us deserve the love that we expect. So, when it comes to us, we can legitimately understand it as an exception to the rule."

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Michael Robbins

“The only really effective antidote to the dreariness of reading the New Atheists,” Hart has written, “is rereading Nietzsche.”

This is wise counsel for believers and atheists alike. In Nietzsche we find the full power and terror that atheism is capable of.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Mary Karr

You have constantly to question, Is this fair? No life is all bleak. Even in Primo Levi’s camp, there were small sources of hope: you got on the good work detail, or you got on the right soup line. That’s what’s so gorgeous about humanity. It doesn’t matter how bleak our daily lives are, we still fight for the light. I think that’s our divinity. We lean into love, even in the most hideous circumstances. We manage to hope.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Renata Adler

     On the other hand, our local controversy is whether we ought to require the ability to read at an eighth-grade level before we let any university student in. I can't understand how that is the question. Surely we are obligated to give them, at least, an eighth-grade education while they're here and before we send them out. "I found the whole work disappointing," Nina Valindez, a student in one of my own courses, here in the city, wrote, in her paper last term. "It was more theatrical than filmic. It did, however, remind me of many nineteenth-century novels such as Vanity Fair by Thakkry. And many of the better novels of Jane Austen." Pat Gertz, one of my best students, wrote a paper on "The Sorted Love Affair in Fiction of the Forties." The paper expressed all the views that a student of my generation might have held, of which affairs were and which were not to be considered "sorted." And yet. And Shelley Muess. Ms. Muess, who had received a passing grade, left many agitated messages last term, after midnight, on my answering service. She warned that she would have to take our case to the Student Faculty Grievance Committee and enter a Denunciation/Demerit against my record with the Faculty Appraisal Board. I called her back. I asked what the trouble was. She said she had never received less than honors grades before. Since it had been a matter of some importance to me that I not actually flunk anybody in this intellectual swamp and rip-off I mentioned that the exam had only required each student to list the films shown in the course. Students were allowed to help one another with it, to take it home and turn it in the following week. Since Shelley Muess had missed most of the films, and misspelled the ones she got, a passing grade seemed to me not ungenerous. "Well," Shelley said, hardly able to breathe with indignation, "I'm not an English major." The chancellor of our branch of the university once asked me what I thought of the head of our division now. I said I thought he was a thug. "Ah," she said, with a chiming laugh and a lilt, clapping he hand just once. "You writers! What a way you have with words." For the most part, the students treat me with grave, gentle concern, as though I were something strange--a giraffe, say--among them, or an apprentice on a tightrope, or one of their own on a bad trip.
- Speedboat


Who is the man who will reflect on his weakness, and yet dare to credit his chastity and innocence to his own powers, so that he loves you the less, as if he had little need for that mercy by which you forgive sins to those who turn to you. There may be someone who has been called by you, and has heeded your voice, and has shunned those deeds which he now hears me recalling and confessing of myself. Let him not laugh to scorn a sick man who has been healed by that same physician who gave him such aid that he did not fall ill, or rather that he had only a lesser ill. Let him therefore love you just as much--even more. For he sees that I have been rescued from such depths of sinful disease by him who, as he also sees, has preserved him from the same maladies.
Confessions, 2.7

Summer Viewing

ROGER: Nick?

NICK: Uncle Roger. How’s it going?

ROGER: What are you doing here, Nick?

NICK: What? Oh, I wanted to see where you work.

ROGER: Yes, no--What are you doing here?

NICK: What? Oh, oh you mean here in um New York, here.


NICK: Oh, uh, well I had an interview at Columbia, so Mom said I should look you up.

ROGER: Ahh. Sit down.


ROGER: That’s what all the phone calls were about.

NICK: Phone calls?

ROGER: Yeah, your mom’s been calling me.

NICK: Well did you speak to her?

ROGER: We’re playing phone tag.

NICK: Yeah, well she uh she said you could show me what you do here.

ROGER: She did, huh. Well, there’s not a whole lot to show you Nick.

NICK: Really? Um, like, what do you, what do you do all day?

ROGER: What do I do all day, what do I do all day. I sit here and think of ways to make people feel bad.

NICK: Oh, I thought you wrote for commercials.

ROGER: I do, but, you can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad.

NICK: Well why not?

ROGER: [Sigh.] Because it’s a substitution game. You have to remind them that they’re missing something from their lives—everyone’s missing something, right?

NICK: Well yeah I guess.

ROGER: Trust me. And when they’re feeling sufficiently incomplete, you convince them that your product is the only thing that can fill the void so, instead of taking steps to deal with their lives, instead of working to root out the real reason for their misery, they run out and buy a stupid-looking pair of cargo pants.

NICK: Um, so uh, um is it fun?

ROGER: Can be. 
Roger Dodger (2002)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

No Words

to compete with these words of dismay and lament. Any art now sincerely made must be "an almost touchingly brave attempt to dance away from the edge of ecocatastrophe," as the end will not seem unusual to most people.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Summer Listening

Robert Christgau, on Cosmic Thing:
AIDS having robbed them of their most essential musician, this is an almost touchingly brave attempt to dance away from the edge of ecocatastrophe. Earthquakes, tidal waves, bushfires, waste dumps, toxic fog, maybe even that Chrysler big as a whale are counterposed to and in theory renewed by positive natural forces--junebugs, spaceships, cosmic vibes, an expanding universe, poor rebellious kids having innocent fun. They're trying to be seriously silly, and they're right to believe serious silliness is a healer.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Slaughterhouse Five

It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
     American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
     The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, where were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and the planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

     When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
     The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

Summer Listening

I am still trying to get to that.

Friday, June 27, 2014


Renata Adler's unconventional book is perhaps more interesting than compelling. I had difficulty reading it for any duration; it seems meant to slow the reader down. Even so, I marked, in the copy I borrowed from the library, several bits I liked. There are many things I'd love to quote here--too many. This is one of the episodes (the whole 'novel' is a collection of episodes) that stunned me and made me want to read it again:
A tall man was beginning a Tiny Tim sort of grateful frenzy--covering his ears, and shaking his head and saying, shrilly, often, how wonderful to him everybody was, how wonderful. Once, at a Christmas party on Park Avenue, when somebody was reading, beautifully, aloud from Dickens, I began to giggle, uncontrollably. It was that classic Tiny Tim and his damn crutch. I have always thought of the other, singing Tiny Tim as serious. Elva Miller, Frances Foster Jenkins, but Tiny Tim especially--being somehow bent to play out the American freak triumphant, to sing in falsetto about tulips, when what he longs to do, knows how to do, does seriously, is sing in exact imitation of 78 r.p.m. records, complete with scratches, old forgotten songs, in exact imitation of the voices of the dead. There he was, then, Tiny Tim, on the talk shows, in no sense a comedian but a loser meant to win it for the losers. The underside, a fifties person. Or rather, contra-fifties, in his peculiar way. For years now, there have been other, sounder contra-fifties people. Against all that modesty, domestication, niceness--Joe Namath, Bobby Fischer, Mark Spitz, Jimmy Connors, Bobby Riggs, Muhammad Ali. For the ladies, well, for the ladies, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Diane Arbus, Janis Joplin, Anne Sexton, and, after all on another racetrack, Ruffian.

All those unendearing braggarts and, on the distaff side, the suicides. Books about Ali. Ten years earlier, the preoccupation with Monroe. But there was a day, or there came, as Sam Dash would say, a time, when an actual Evel Knievel metaphor appeared--in an event that was inconsequential, small. The proposition was deep. It virtually spun. People were invited to see somebody ride his motorcycle over a canyon gap. That was what it was said they had been invited to pay to see. An early truth of the matter was this: it could not be done. The performer and his sponsors knew what he was going to do. The people who paid their admission knew what they were coming to see. By the end, the morally spinning proposition was this: when, by some miscalculation, the motorcyclist was actually exposed to a danger which he had not foreseen, when his parachutes almost failed so that he nearly did get killed (not, it is true, in a manner that had anything to do with the alleged hazards of his ride, but rather by being slammed by his parachutes into the sides of cliffs), when, in short, the escape procedure became the menace, were the members of the audience entitled to feel cheated in any way. They had paid to see him die. He had arranged to escape unharmed. There was nothing of the old-style prestidigitator-understanding in this thing. In their separate ways, neither party ever seriously entertained any notion that the motorcycle could rocket successfully over that canyon gap. What did, then, occur; what was the event? A performer and an audience conspired that someone should be misled. The performer intended a motorized parachute jump. The audience paid to see a suicide. No fifties teamwork or nice-guy qualities in it anywhere. Nothing went according to plan. The question was who was misled, whom were they conspiring to mislead? Why, history. For a perfect moment it was like almost every other event in public life.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Nature's Way

"It's nature's way of telling you something's wrong."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Poem of Limited Form

Hey. I was reading on the porch
this morning, the day after I broke my nose,
and a pigeon landed in the street before the house
and walked toward the gutter to drink some water.
I watched it and thought about how its head bobs
at the same rate its feet move.
The faster it walks, the faster its head bobs,
like a mechanical toy, a whirligig or whatever.
I thought then of drumming, of Meg White
in particular, how the knock on her was she
was a bad musician. And you can hear what they who say it
mean: Her high hat rhythm is tied to her foot’s.
The high hat and kick drum match, they are not
independent of each other, in the way good drummers
are capable of making them be. That’s how I drum, too.
We’re no Buddy Rich, no Neal Peart, but I couldn’t make
a Meg White. I couldn’t make a pigeon.
I want to be kinder in what I say about people and things.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Za'atari Refugee Camp

[Image lifted from here. Recent article here.]

Monday, June 9, 2014

Summer means reading,

which means this blog will contain, among other "organic matter produced by the decomposition of organisms," a repository of quotations, like this (I.9), from The Confessions of St. Augustine, which I've never before read
O God, my God, great was the misery and great the deception that I met with when it was impressed upon me that, to behave properly as a boy, I must obey my teachers. This was all that I might succeed in this world and excel in those arts of speech which would serve to bring honor among men and to gain deceitful riches. Hence I was sent to school to acquire learning, the utility of which, wretched child that I was, I did not know. Yet if I was slow at learning, I was beaten. This method was praised by our forebears, many of whom had passed through this life before us and had laid out the hard paths that we were forced to follow. Thus were both toil and sorry multiplied for the sons of Adam.


"Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Owens Valley, May 2014

Albert Goldbarth

Because I read this essay, I checked out this book. Here are two poems from it I read last night:

Poem 1

Poem 2

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hansel & Gretel

     Hansel went up and broke off a piece of the roof to see what it tasted like. Gretel went to the window and nibbled at that. A gentle voice called out from within:

         "Nibbling, nibbling like a mouse,
          Who's nibbling at my little house?"

      The children answered:
         "The wind, the wind doth blow
          From heaven to earth below."

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Take the Money and Run"

Two bored, TV-watching stoners decide for fun to shoot a man in his own house, steal his money, and flee. A lawman, parasitically "livin' off the peoples' taxes," pursues them without success.

"Night Moves"

Man recalls first sex partner, contemplates mortality.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Three Shots from North by Northwest

Language & Guns & Violence

The war against euphemism and cliché matters not because we can guarantee that eliminating them will help us speak nothing but the truth but, rather, because eliminating them from our language is an act of courage that helps us get just a little closer to the truth. Clear speech takes courage. Every time we tell the truth about a subject that attracts a lot of lies, we advance the sanity of the nation. Plain speech matters because when we speak clearly we are more likely to speak truth than when we retreat into slogan and euphemism; avoiding euphemism takes courage because it almost always points plainly to responsibility. To say “torture” instead of “enhanced interrogation” is hard, because it means that someone we placed in power was a torturer. That’s a hard truth and a brutal responsibility to accept. But it’s so.
The rest is worth reading.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


He saw himself, his face, his branching antlers
In a stream he longed to say, "O miser-
Able me!" but had no words, nothing but
Animal cries while tears ran down his changed,
Bewildered face. Only his mind remained
What it had been: What could he do? Where could
He turn? Go home where a king's palace waited?
Or make his way into a deeper forest?
Shame unmanned one path and his fears the other.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Russell Edson

Last Tuesday (April 29th), our local library held a community reading for the end of National Poetry Month. Anyone could come and share some poems. The librarian knows our family and knows I write poetry, so she asked if I'd participate. I said I would, but I didn't want to bring my own work to read. Instead, I chose a few poems I thought might work with a small-town crowd of poetry lovers.

When I arrived, a circle of chairs had been set up in the back corner of the library, with most occupied by people over sixty. Some read their own poems, some read those written by others. We got a Frost, a Kay Ryan, a Neruda, and "Richard Cory," by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Among my selection were two poems by Russell Edson.

I've just learned that Russell Edson died that same night, April 29th, after a long illness. I've only read a handful of his poems, but it's a beloved handful. Here's one that, when I shared it last week to a room full of strangers, elicited from them a subtle, wordless sound of recognition:
An Old Man’s Son
    There was an old man who had a kite for a son, which he would let up into the air attached to a string, when he had need to be alone.
    …And would watch this high bloom of himself, as something distant that will be close again…

Captain Beefheart

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Roundball Poetics

1. 'A stanza is a unit of poetry within a larger poem.'

2. 'The Clippers jumped out quickly to a nine-point lead, but it was erased in the next stanza by the Warriors, who took an eight-point lead by the second quarter.'

Monday, April 28, 2014

C.S. Lewis

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions.

"We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books”

- in his introduction to Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. [I borrowed this from Andrew Sullivan, who posted it yesterday.]

Friday, April 25, 2014


'My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck 
          on my distant and day-long ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.
I believe in those wing’d purposes,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing 
          within me,
And consider green and violet and tufted crown 
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because 
          she is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, 
          yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.'

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Andy Crouch

"What is the ultimate thing an idol can ask of you? Your life. Actually not your life--your child's life. The ultimate demand an idol can ask is not, 'Sacrifice your life.' It's, 'Sacrifice the life of your children.'"

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

I'll Stop if You Stop

Part of an ongoing collaborative project. More here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

WH Auden

"In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens."

from "The Poet & The City" (1962)

"Common People" and "Capital"

I'd heard recently that Pulp's "Common People" was voted by the UK public the best pop song ever, or somesuch, though it turns out I was a bit off: Best Britpop Song ever, as voted by BBC listeners. [Full version here, but with bad audio.] These listeners are on to something. The song builds in sound and dance-ability as it builds in outrage. I remember, back in the 90s, the story being that Britpop, specifically acts like Pulp & Blur, couldn't make it in the States because their concerns were too provincial, particularly when they turned to issues like class. We Americans live in a classless society, the thinking goes. Anyone can make it if they work hard enough.

Since I've never had to put that last sentence to the test in any real way, I can't attest to its truth. But reading all the press about Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, currently the #1 book on Amazon, has made me think about the song again. One main gist of the book, as far as I can tell (I haven't read it yet), is that since the rate of return (r) on capital greatly outperforms the growth of economies (g), the already staggering gap between rich and poor will continue to grow, unless something is done about it:
Mr Piketty is not arguing that r>g means that rising inequality is inevitable. Indeed, that is close to the precise opposite of his argument, which is that r>g is a force for divergence in the economy which has at times been countered by external forces, and which can and should be similarly countered in [the] future.
This means that, as things are now, those who have or inherit money make more money than those who work hard, even if they work much harder than the haves do. I don't know how accurate Piketty's analysis is, but one recent study about wealth disparity in the U.S. concludes the following:
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
Little or no independent influence: i.e., common people.

[A live version of the song is here.]

READING: Wednesday, 4/29

I'm reading with four tremendous poets--Allison Benis White, Lorene Delany-Ullman, Patty Seyburn, and Victoria Chang--on Wednesday, April 29th, in Irvine. I invite anyone reading this blog to come on out. More information about the reading can be found here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Every Grain of Sand

a song to play at my funeral: